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Breakthrough: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of Insulin

October 05, 2010
January 31, 2011

Recalling the desperate fight for life that used to be waged by juvenile diabetes patients, and commemorating the events of 1921 that inaugurated a new era of hope for them and their families, the New-York Historical Society will present the exhibition Breakthrough: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of Insulin from October 5, 2010 through January 31, 2011. Exploring the roles of science, government, higher education and industry in developing and distributing a life-saving drug, the exhibition will bring to life the personalities who discovered insulin and raced to bring it to the world and will tell the story of one extraordinary New York girl—Elizabeth Evans Hughes, daughter of the leading statesman and jurist Charles Evans Hughes—who was among the very first patients to be saved.

To lead visitors through this history, from the discovery of insulin in Toronto by Dr. Frederick Banting in 1921 and its first human trials in 1922 to its widespread use today, Breakthrough will feature digital interactives, film, artifacts and ephemera drawn from the Historical Society's own collections and from archives including those of the University of Toronto, Eli Lilly and Company, the Rockefeller Institute, the Joslin Clinic and the New York Academy of Medicine.

The first chapter will recount the excitement, and the clash of personalities, among the scientists whose research led to the discovery of insulin, beginning in May 1921. Also included in this chapter will be an account of the valiant but heartbreaking efforts of Dr. Frederick Allen in the years before the discovery to prolong the lives of diabetic children through the use of a starvation diet. The story of Elizabeth Evans Hughes, told in part through actual treatment charts and period letters, will bring to life the impact of insulin when it first became available. Because Elizabeth was the daughter of Charles Evans Hughes—Governor of New York (1907–1910), Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1910–1916), United States Secretary of State (1921–1925) and Chief Justice of the United States (1930–1941)—her survival provided powerful testimony to the value of insulin, and helped bring the work of Dr. Allen and Dr. Banting to the world's stage.

The exhibition's second chapter will examine how insulin became available for widespread medical use through a partnership between the University of Toronto and Eli Lilly and Company—the first such collaboration between an academic institution and a drug company. Photographs from the Lilly archives will reveal the painstaking early method of manufacturing insulin in mass quantities—an innovative industrial process that ran from the slaughterhouse to the laboratory. Display cases of syringes, vials, testing kits for blood sugar and other equipment will take the story of insulin treatment from the 1920s up through today.

The exhibition's final chapter will tell about recent developments—notably the synthesis of insulin in the 1980s as the world's first biotechnology drug—and the current state of research, development, treatment and demography of diabetes. Included in this chapter will be information about the alarming increase in prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in the past decade, and the ways in which individuals, families and institutions can address this health crisis. The exhibition will conclude with a presentation of Life for a Child, a documentary film produced by the International Diabetes Federation and Eli Lilly and Company to raise awareness of the devastating impact of the disease.

Breakthrough will be installed in the Historical Society's 1,300-square-foot temporary gallery, located just off the 77th Street entrance, while the remainder of the landmark Central Park West building undergoes a $60 million architectural renovation.


Creative: Tronvig Group